Pradeep Sebastian

Mecca of rare books

Kumar's bookshop  

One can only imagine it today: a set of cosy rooms in an ancestral home on a busy street in Calcutta in the 1950s resembling a finely appointed private library with a complex of bookcases and furniture that was actually an antiquarian bookshop one could walk into for a browse and for long conversations with its bohemian-bibliophile owner. His name was Nirmal Chandra Kumar, and his bookshop was called, simply, Kumars. From 1945 until his death in 76, Kumar ran a rare bookshop from his home. It took up several rooms and the stock ranged widely, from fine bindings to prints to maps.

Pradeep Sebastian

I first learnt about Kumar and his bookshop when I stumbled upon a blog by his son, Aloke Kumar, on his father’s bookshop and its influence on the life and work of many Bengali artists and intellectuals of that time who were all regulars at Kumars. I was delighted to discover there had once been such a marvellous bookshop in India — a genuine antiquarian bookshop in a country where antiquarian bookselling and buying is not an ingrained tradition. In this sense, Kumar was no doubt a maverick and thank God for that. Eager to know more, I managed to contact his son, Professor Aloke Kumar, for a brief chat on the phone.

In one of his writings, Kumar describes his father: “a stocky Bengali… he wore a white collared shirt, half-sleeved, and a lungi; his formal dress was a dhoti and kurta with pump shoes. Can you imagine somebody wearing this dress and smoking a pipe or a Davidus cigar sitting in his library surrounded by books?” Kumar was probably the first Indian bookseller to publish a rare books catalogue in the long tradition of all bespoke antiquarian booksellers around the world, especially the legends Kumar had done business with, Quaritch and Maggs. The city’s bibliophiles, artists, luminaries, antiquarians and bohemians all frequented Kumars. Satyajit Ray, a regular browser here, consulted Kumar when he was making The Chess Players: in a London book auction, Kumar had bid for and won a priceless scrapbook on the Mutiny.

Ray went on to pay his own little tribute to Kumar in the character of the encyclopaedic Sidhujata in the Feluda stories. Well-known antiquarian Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee was also a customer. When he donated thousands of rare books to the National Library, several books in the collection had once come from Kumars. “In the early 1940s,” writes Aloke Kumar, “rare book collection was in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book shop Cambray… was already fading, Thacker and Spink was alive, but there were hardly any rare books… Kumar helped to change all that. His enthusiasms included the then unheralded British painters, Thomas and William Daniel, to be re-introduced to Calcutta once more. He bought the rare elephantine folio of 144 Views of T&W Daniell from Sotheby’s to ship it to Calcutta.”

What was just as remarkable about Kumar — reading his son’s reflections — was how generously and freely he gave to his customers, friends and family even though the bookshop wasn’t a profitable business and . It just broke even most of the time, but Kumar, right in the middle of his struggles to keep the bookshop afloat and provide care for the needs of his own family, invited his parents (who had faced a financial loss) to come live with him. He was also apparently a gourmet and “organized the very best of fine cooking to be presented to his friends. Sometimes such delicacies that you would only find in the pages of some rare Mughal document.”

Aloke recalls a regular errand for his father: being sent off with books in hand to be delivered to Satyajit Ray; he also remembers how cautious everyone in the house was about handling the books, tiptoeing around the shelves, careful not to disturb them. One of the things that broke Kumar’s heart was the sharp practice in the antiquarian trade in the late 1970s of breaking up rare books, atlases and maps to make a bigger profit. Some of his fellow booksellers had begun to buy books with rare prints and maps and tear them up in order to sell each print or map individually. You made more money this way than when you sold the set or the atlas as a whole.

“Kumar did not want to be a part of this and lost out,” says Aloke. “And it was with a sense of bowing to the inevitable that Kumars mentally gave up. Nirmal Kumar died in 1976 and with his death, the literary world lost a sweet and genuinely unselfish man who freely gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he influenced so profoundly.”

My interest in this impassioned, unsung bookman and his cherished antiquarian bookshop is not so much for the luminaries who once buzzed around it as much as for imagining the regular traffic of ordinary bibliophiles, scholars, and collectors for whom Kumars must have been a Mecca of fine and rare books.

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 9:55:03 PM |

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